Tag Archives: custard

Cakes: History and background

Stacked Books Tassles by ChicosMom, found on www.cakecentral.com. Click the picture to head over there and have a look if you want to look at lots of amazing cakes and lose several hours of your life!

Finally, a new post! I’m afraid the lack of blog posts is not due to me jetting off on some kind of holiday in August, but because I have been trying to write a chapter. The chapter focuses on alcoholic drinks, so aside from the buttered beer I haven’t come across much in my reading that I can write about here. Today, however, I thought I might do a little baking, and I figured that while I was at it I might as well bake something for the blog too. So, I shall be making some early modern cakes, and here you shall find a little bit of background on them. I am still wading through books on alcohol and allegories and trying to pull a chapter together, so I don’t have time to really get into the history of cakes, but here are a few tidbits to whet your appetite before I post the recipe in a few days:

Thou bel amy, thou Pardoner,’ he seyde,
‘Tel us som mirthe or Iapes right anon.’
‘It shall be doon,’ quod he, ‘by seint Ronyon!
But first,’ quod he, ‘heer at this ale-stake
I wol both drinke, and eten of a cake.’

The Canterbury Tales. 317-328

I’ve gone back a little further than usual looking for references with this one. Cakes are mentioned several times in the tales but I’ve gone for this quote from the Pardoner. As characters in the Canterbury Tales go, the Pardoner is one of the least appealing, and his eating and drinking here seems to me to be suggestive of greed.

What did cake mean in the early modern and medieval world? Well, according to the OED it had two  meanings. The first, originating from an earlier time, was “a baked mass of bread or substance of similar kind, distinguished from a loaf or other ordinary bread, either by its form or by its composition”. The cake would be smaller than a loaf of bread, “round, oval, or otherwise regularly shaped, and usually baked hard on both sides by being turned during the process”. I suppose this would be somewhat similar to what you would call a roll, bun or batch today (depending on which part of the country you live in). Anyway, it seems that a cake need not be something sweet, as it usually is today (excepting things like potato cakes, I suppose). Another meaning which ran alongside the first but came to prominence during the 16th and particularly the 17th centuries was that which eventually lead to the modern sense, “fancy bread, and sweetened or flavoured”. Now, of course, we see cake as a different substance to bread – the latter being as a rule risen with yeast and made of flour and water, and the former being made of flour, butter, sugar and eggs (6oz each of the first three and then 3 eggs – or at least that’s what my mother taught me).

It’s also worth mentioning that “cake” could also refer to a type of “thin hard-baked brittle species of oaten-bread” which was eaten in Scotland and the north. In Edward Sharpham’s The Fleire (1607), the titular character says: Send her an Oten cake, t’is a good Northern token”, illustrating this point.

I’ve seen “Court cakebreads” mentioned in a few plays, and I think these might be the “fancy bread” referred to above – court food is, as I’ve discussed before, usually described as being fancy and embellished in some way. Cakebreads seem to go hand in hand with custards, you’ll see they are mentioned in a few of the quotes I used in my post about custard.

Now, I said this wouldn’t be a very long post, so I’ve just got one mention of cake from a play that I thought was interesting. As it happens, there is a copy of this play in the collection I’m studying.

In Richard Brome’s The Late Lancashire Witches, wedding cake, or “bride-cake” has a role to play. At a wedding feast, some revelers wait with the bride cake to “cracke and crumble upon her crowne” – this seems to be some kind of wedding tradition. However, there is a spirit in the house, and he turns the cake to bran, prompting a cry of “the divell of crum is here, but bran; nothing but bran!”. As the play is set in Lancashire, perhaps this is a reference to the “oat-cakes” mentioned earlier? It’s also interesting to see that wedding cakes have apparently been around for a while, though I am glad that they don’t get crumbled on people’s heads anymore. Having said that, there is a growing tradition, mainly in America, I believe, of brides and grooms squashing cake into each other’s faces, so perhaps this is coming back!

And finally, here’s some wisdom from a 16th century book of proverbs:

Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?

John Heywood, A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the englishe tongue (1546)

Doesn’t it just make so much more sense that way around? I never understood why it was a bad thing to want to have your cake and eat it – surely that’s what you do when you have a cake?! But yes, it would be silly to want to eat it and then have it back again.

Anyway, that’s all for now, I shall be back soon with a recipe for 16th century cakes!

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Comfits and custards revisited – recipes

I’ve finally had a second attempt at the custards, and a third attempt at the comfits. Happily, this time both worked very well indeed.

I’ll start with the custard first. You can find the early modern recipe and my initial attempt here. For some background on custards, see this post.

Custard tart

400g plain flour

4 eggs, plus 2 more yolks

75g butter, room temperature

2 tbsp sugar

Few drops rosewater

300ml double cream

4tbsp sugar

Generous pinch each ground mace, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves

Small pinch salt

Caraway comfits

A few dates

Preheat the oven to 150c. Mix the flour with two beaten eggs until a dough is formed. If it’s too dry you can add a little water. Take some of the dough, about a fifth, and roll it out as thinly as you can. If you end up with holes, it’s not too much of a problem as you’ll be layering it up. Spread some of the butter on the pastry, then roll out another piece, put it on top and spread more butter. Continue until all of the pastry is layered up, don’t butter the last piece. Roll out the layered pastry again, then use to line the greased tin. Mix the sugar and rosewater with 1tbsp water, then sprinkle over the pastry case. Bake in the oven for about 10 minutes.

While the pastry case is baking, whisk the remaining eggs and yolks with the cream, spices and 2 tbsp of sugar. Remove the pastry from the oven and scatter the remaining sugar and the currents over the base of the pastry case. Pour the egg and cream mixture into the case. Bake in the oven for 35-45 minutes, until the custard is set. When the custard is cool, scatter over caraway comfits (see recipe below) and stick in some dates.

Caraway comfits

For the background on comfits, see this post. You will find the recipe and first attempt here.

38g caraway seeds (this is the usual amount you get in a small jar)

300g caster sugar

Heat the sugar with 100ml water over a low heat until the sugar is melted and the syrup is bubbling. Let it bubble for a few minutes, stirring all the time, then turn the heat right down as low as you can get it. You need to keep the mixture warm so it stays liquid, but if it’s overheating ad starting to boil you can take it off the heat for a few minutes. Once you have your warm sugar syrup ready, warm a frying pan over a very low heat and add the caraway seeds. Add a very small amount of the syrup – DO NOT add too much the comfits won’t work – see the first attempt post for an example of it going wrong! You probably want only about a tablespoon of liquid, it’s important to make sure that you only add enough to dampen the seeds slightly.

Stir them round with a metal spatula until the liquid is absorbed and the seeds are dry. They look a little bit white, getting more so with each coating. When the seeds are dry, add another small amount of liquid. Repeat this process until all the liquid is done – you will need to apply many coats. Don’t be tempted to rush by adding too much liquid or by turning up the heat, or you’ll ruin them. Once they are done, cool, then store in an airtight jar.

I would recommend trying both of these recipes, they both came out rather tasty. The comfits were particularly nice, you can keep them in a cupboard for a while and use them in biscuits and the like, they would also be nice sprinkled on cereal. They are quite easy to make, as long as you are careful not to use too much heat or liquid.

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Custards: Part 2 – Cooking, no recipe….yet

As I explained in part 1,  an early modern custard is a baked pastry case filled with custard. The recipe I used from Gervase Markham’s Countrey Contentments, or The English Huswife (1623) specifies a pastry recipe from elsewhere in the text – it’s a puff pastry recipe that looks a little more complicated than the last one I tried. Here’s the pastry recipe:

Now for the making of puffe-past of the best kind, you shall take the finest wheat flowre after it hath been a little bak’t in a pot in the ouen, and blend it well with egges whites and yelkes altogether, then after the past is well kneaded, roule out a part thereof as thin as you please, and then spread cold sweet butter ouer the same, then vpon the same butter role another leafe of the paste as before; and spread it with butter also; and thus role leafe vpon leafe with butter betweene till it be as thick as you thinke good: and with it either couer any bak’t meate, or make pastie for Venison, Florentine, Tart or what dish else you please and so bake it: there be some that to this past vse sugar, but it is certaine it will hinder the rising thereof; and therefore when your puft past is bak’t, you shall dissolue sugar into Rose-water, and drop it into the paste as much as it will by any meanes receiue, and then set it a little while in the ouen after and it will be sweet enough.

I have made puff pastry before, and this recipe is quite similar to a modern one with the rolling and buttering of the pastry. Modern recipes don’t use egg though, as far as I recall. The warming of the flour seems odd – I looked this up on trusty old Google and found a few references to it in bread making but I’m not sure what it’s for. I did it anyway, who knows, it might make for delicious pastry.

I started with one beaten egg and then added flour until it came together as a dough. It was about 200g flour.

I then kneeded the dough and split it into 5 pieces. I rolled out the first piece as thin as I could get it and then spread butter on it. Obviously the butter would not have been fridge cold, what with fridges still being a good few hundred years away at the time of printing, so I took it out of the fridge about an hour before I needed it and let it come to room temperature.

Butter would have likely been kept with other perishables in a cool part of the kitchen, or in an earthenware pot kept in water. You can find out more about the history of butter, if you are so inclined, at this page: Butter Through the Ages. By the late17th century some kitchens had ice-houses – underground structures packed with snow and ice during the winter. Being underground meant they were cool enough to keep the ice frozen, and foods cold, throughout the year. Petworth House, where my PhD research is based, has an ice-house, although I believe it dates from a later period.

Anyway, back to the cooking. I used room temperature butter and spread it on the pastry. I then added another later on top and rolled it out again. I repeated this until all of the pastry was used.

Once the pastry was made I cut a diamond shape, then cut a long piece for the sides and stuck it down to the flat piece with an egg yolk, as recommended in the custard recipe. I baked the pastry case, or coffin, in the oven until it started to crisp up. I then mixed 1 tbsp sugar with a few drops of rosewater and a little water, then drizzled this over the pastry, base, returning it to the oven once again.

To bake an excellent Custard or Dowset; you shall take good store of Single illegible lettergges, and putting away one quarter of the whites, beate them exceeding well in a bason, and then mixe with them the sweetest and thickest creame you can get, for if it be any thing thinne, the Custard will be wheyish; then season it with salt, sugar, cinamon, cloues, mace, and a little Nutmegge; which done raise your coffins of good tough wheate paste, being the second sort before spoke of, and if you please raise it in pretty workes, or angular formes, which you may doe by fixing the vp|per part of the crust to the nether with the yelks of egges: then when the coffins are ready, strow the bottomes a good thicknesse ouer with Currants and Sugar; then Single illegible letteret them into the Ouen, and fill them vp with the confecti|on before blended, and so drawing them, adorne all the toppes with Carraway Cumfets, and the slices of Dates prickt right vp, and so serue them vp to the table.

For my custard, I took 4 eggs yolks and 3 egg whites and beat them together. I then added about 250ml double cream. You might have noticed that cream and butter are often referred to as sweet – this does not mean they are sugared but that they are fresh. I added a tiny pinch of salt and ground cinnamon, cloves, mace and nutmeg. I covered the bottom with currants and sugar, then poured the custard over the top and baked it in the oven until the custard was set. I took it out and stuck in some dates.

The custard did leak out quite a bit through the sides, and as the tarts were fairly shallow the currants were still visible as the custard set around them. The taste, particularly of the pastry, was very tasty indeed, but the custard didn’t really set properly, instead it was quite puffed up and fluffy, not set and creamy as I had hoped. I had to guess the measurements for the cream as one wasn’t given in the recipe – I think I might have to look up modern day custard tart recipes for some guidance on getting the quantities right. I won’t post a recipe yet as I don’t feel I’ve perfected it – but this is one I’ll definitely be having another   go at to get it right.

Also, I did have a go at caraway comfits, but that didn’t go very well either! I think I know where I went wrong though so next time I should be able to get them right.

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Custards: Part 1

Custard tart by Shanti, shanti used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license

 

I am working on a chapter section about The Great Duke of Florence by Philip Massinger (1636) at the moment, and  these lines spoken by Calandrino, a servant of one of the main characters, gave me the idea of trying out a custard recipe:

Why how to behave my self in Court, & tytely
I have beene told the very place transformes men,
And that not one of a thousand, that before
Liv’d honestly in the Country, on plaine Sallads,
But bring him thither, marke me that, and feed him
But a moneth or two with Custards and Court Cakebread,
And he turnes Knave immediately. I would be honest;
But I must follow the fashion, or die a beggar.

Calandrino is the play’s comic relief character – the comedy usually centres around him wanting to fit in at court in spite of his country roots, as seen in the extract above. The difference between country and court life, one plain the other elaborate, is a recurring theme in the play, and is in fact fairly common throughout Renaissance drama, particularly 17th century works.

“A custard” does not just refer to the thick yellow stuff we know and love (well, I do anyway), an early modern custard is almost always referring to thick custard baked in a pastry case, we still have these today in the form of custard tarts (which I also love).

Custards are referred to in many plays of the period, I’ve noticed that they’re often listed as part the menu of a banquet, seeming to bring with them connotations of richness, excess and courtly luxury. Here is an example from Thomas Heywood’s A Maidenhead Well Lost (1634):

Enter the Clowne with his Table-bookes.

Clowne: Let me see, the Prince is to bee married to morrow, and my young Mistris meanes to keepe a Feast in the Forrest, in honour of his wedding at the Court: Now am I sent as Ca|terer into the City to prouide them victualls, which they charg’d me to buy; no ordinary fare, no more it shall, and therefore I haue cast it thus; First and foremost, wee will haue—(yes downe it shall) we will haue a Gammon of Bacon roasted, and stufft with Oysters; And sixe Black-Puddings to bee serued vp in Sorrell-sops; A pickell’d shoulder of Mutton, and a surloyne of Beefe in White-broth, so much for the first course. Now, for the second, we will haue a Cherry-Tart cut into Rashers and broyled; A Custard Carbonado’d on the coales; A liue Eele swimming in clowted Creame; And sixe Sheepes-heads baked, with the hornes peering out of the pasty-crust.

A tablebook is a notebook so I suppose the clown is keeping a note of his bizzare food ideas unless he forgets them. Though I would think it would be hard to forget about the live eel swimming in cream. The first course sounds fairly normal, if extravagant, but everything in the clown’s second course is comically absurd. “A Custard Carbonado’d” is, to quote the OED, “A piece of meat or fish scored across and grilled over coals” which sounds like a very strange thing to do with a custard tart.

Heywood appears to have had a thing about custards – he mentions them, again in a list, in The Late Lancashire Witches (1634, written with Richard Brome):

‘Tis a busie time, yet will I review the Bill of fare, for this dayes dinner—(Reades) for 40· people of the best quality, 4. messes of meat; viz. a leg of Mutton in plum-broth, a disSection of illegible text of Marrow|bones, a white-broth, a Surlovne of beefe, a Pig, a Goose, a TurkiSection of illegible text, and two Pyes: for the second course, to every messe 4. Chickens in a dish, a couple of Rabbets, Custard, Flawn, Florentines, and stewd pruines,—all very good Country fare, and for my credit,—

Enter  playing before, Lawrence, Doughty, Arthur, Bantam, WhSection of illegible texttstone, and Gregory, with dishes: A Spirit (over the doore) does some action to the dishes as they enter.

The service enters, O well sayd, play up the meat to the Table till all be serv’d in, e see it passe in answer to my bill.

The spirit over the door casts a spell on the food that transforms it strange things, and the custards become “cow sheards” – cow dung. Strange goings on with food are often a feature of witchcraft plays – I’ve written a little on this before, see my post on marchpane.

Custards are also mentioned in at least two of Heywood’s other plays – How a Man May Choose a Good Wife from a Bad (1602) and The Fair Maid of the Exchange (1607).

Thanks to their consistency, custards are often described as “quaking”, as in these lines from James Shirley’s The Wedding (1629):

They fight? a doublet, stuft with straw, aduancing
A bull-rush, were able to fright em both
Out a’their sences, tha’not soule enough
To skirmish with a field-mouse; they poynt a duell?
At Hogs-don, to shew fencing vpon Creame
And cake-bread, murder a quaking Custard,
Or some such daring enemy.

While the Captain may mock the ferocity of custard, an anonymous broadside ballad from 1684 reveals that it could prove very dangerous indeed – it is entitled Strange and wonderful news from Newberry: concerning a youth that was choak’d by eating of custard. The story goes that a boy named Chuf made a wager with another young lad that he could eat a custard in the time that the boy could run a certain distance and back. The boy was quicker than Chuf expected, however, and he hadn’t finished half of the custard by the time the boy was on his way back, so Chuf “Thrust t’other half into his Throat”, with unpleasant results:

The suffocating Custard wrought
within his Gullet so,
That to the ground he tumbled down;
a woful overthrow.

The ballad writer ends with this warning about the evils of custard, which, whatever the old joke says, is apparently yellow and dangerous even without the sharks:

Let this a Warning be to you
that go to Islington,
Custard will kill, Experience shows,
as quick as any Gun.

Beware you that on Holydays
abroad do feast your Wives,
For you that feed on Custard go
in danger of your Lives.

I laugh in the face of danger, however, so I shall be ignoring this warning and making a delicious custard from a recipe in Gervase Markham’s Countrey Contentments. Check back for the recipe later in the week!

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